Respect issues should be first

Should I punish my strong-willed son for every little thing he does wrong? I would be on his back every minute of the day.

Question: Should I punish my strong-willed son for every little thing he does wrong? I would be on his back every minute of the day.

Answer: I am not suggesting that you be oppressive in dealing with everyday behaviour. The issues that should get your attention are those that deal with respect for you as his mother. When he is defiant, sassy and disobedient, you should confidently and firmly step in and lead. This disobedient behaviour is distinctly different, however, from that which is natural and necessary for learning and development. Let me explain.

Toddlers most often get in trouble for simply exploring and investigating their world. That is a great mistake. Preschoolers learn by poking their fingers into things that adults think they should leave alone. But this busy exploration is extremely important to intellectual stimulation.

Whereas you and I will look at a crystal trinket, and obtain whatever information we seek from that visual inspection, a toddler will expose that pretty object to all of her senses. She will pick it up, taste it, smell it, wave it in the air, pound it on the wall, throw it across the room, and listen to the pretty sound that it makes when shattering. By that process she learns a bit about gravity, rough versus smooth surfaces, the brittle nature of glass, and some startling things about Mother’s anger.

I am not suggesting that your child be allowed to destroy your home and all of its contents. Neither is it right to expect him to keep his hands to himself. Parents should remove those items that are fragile or dangerous, and then strew the child’s path with fascinating objects of all types. Permit him to explore everything possible and do not ever punish him for touching something that he did not know was off limits, regardless of its value. With respect to dangerous items, such as electric plugs and stoves, as well as a few untouchable objects, such as the controls on the television set, it is possible and necessary to teach and enforce the command, “Don’t touch!”

If the child refuses to obey even after you have made your expectations clear, a mild slap on the hands while saying no will usually discourage repeat episodes.

I would, however, recommend patience and tolerance for all those other everyday episodes that involve neither defiance nor safety.

Question: I have to fight with my nine-year-old daughter to get her to do anything she doesn’t want to do. It’s so unpleasant that I’ve about decided not to take her on. Why should I try to force her to work and help around the house? What’s the downside of my just going with the flow and letting her off the hook?

Answer: It’s typical for nine-year-olds not to want to work, of course, but they still need to become acquainted with it. If you permit a pattern of irresponsibility to prevail in your child’s formative years, she may fall behind in her developmental timetable leading toward the full responsibilities of adult living.

As a 10-year-old, she won’t be able to do anything unpleasant since she has never been required to stay with a task until it is completed. She won’t know how to give to anyone else because she’s only thought of herself. She’ll find it hard to make decisions or control her own impulses.

A few years from now, she will steamroll into adolescence and then adulthood completely unprepared for the freedom and obligations she will find there. Your daughter will have had precious little training for those pressing responsibilities of maturity.

Obviously, I’ve painted a worst-case scenario with regard to your daughter. You still have plenty of opportunity to help her avoid it. I just hope your desire for harmony doesn’t lead you to do what will be harmful to her in later years.

James Dobson is founder and chairman emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.family.org). Questions and answers are excerpted from Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide and Bringing Up Boys, both published by Tyndale House.

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